Thursday, August 17, 2023

Warm days, cool nights

Yesterday morning I stood out on the deck watching the day begin. Mid-August, 41 degrees, I was barefoot, wearing pajamas under a heavy robe and enjoying breakfast while Gabbi patrolled the perimeter of the yard. A cup of one of those hearty granola cereals drenched in ice-cold milk, and topped with a handful of fresh raspberries, seemed perfect. Strong coffee to follow. By afternoon the temperature would rise to 80 and a strong wind would bring a thunderstorm.

It’s easy to drift into a contemplative mood, sort of melancholy, on a morning like this, waiting for the sun to rise over the treetops. I don’t tend to look back at the past much, certainly not to dwell on it, but sometimes you wonder how life might have been had a different route been taken or another answer been given. Mostly, though, I think about more down-to-earth things: like how musician friends and poets make a living with no other visible means of support. Or how about a couple of those deck boards that soon need replacing. Or why did I miss so many birds at the skeet club last week? You know, stuff like that. 

The fly fishing for smallmouth bass on Vermilion has slowed way down, as it does every summer. They go deep, they fill up on crawfish, they become nocturnal – I don’t know, I’ve never gotten a good handle on it. And the last two river outings have been nothing to brag about, either. Four decent smallmouths on the St. Louis, a half-dozen on an un-named flowage. Most on streamers. 

But Karr Lake, only a few minutes from home, has a healthy and eager population of bluegills along with some decent largemouth bass. All sixty-nine acres of lily pad covered shoreline are just right for a small boat or canoe and I seldom see anyone else there. Except for Pastor Don. The good pastor is a neighbor and enjoys padding his beautiful wood/canvas canoe on the lake early mornings. Probably helps him come up with a meaningful sermon for Sunday service. Whenever he sees me out there, he paddles over for a chat. He’s good company. 

My bluegill poppers are all close to the same. Most of my fly-tying material is mail order, and I received a pack of yellow deer hair I wanted for some bass bugs. But the hair is frustratingly short, too short for the large poppers I wanted to tie, and I nearly tossed it away. Instead, I marked the bag “short" and stuffed it in my materials box. Turns out it works fine for a small bluegill popper. It’s a quick tie: two small clumps of hair spun on the hook, no stacking or packing, and a disk of foam on the face. A quick trim job and it’s done. 

Even when the bite is slow the bluegills are a pretty reliable source of fun, and there’s always the chance for a surprise largemouth. Good fishing! 

Thursday, June 22, 2023

the TUG...

 I was up at 4:30, wanting to get to the lake while it was still early and, supposedly, while the smallmouth bass would be active in the shallows. It’s generally considered early morns and evenings make for the best still-water bass fishing – a belief that holds true for pursuing any wild game. Except, that is, for flowing rivers. Whenever I get with my river running friends, we never seem to get on the river much before 10 a.m. They say the water needs to warm up for the bite to get good, and I don’t doubt it, though I’ve never been on those streams as the sun was breaking.  

This time of year, even at the 4:30 hour the eastern sky is lighting and the birds are singing. Driving past the open hay fields of my neighbors, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I should’ve already been on the lake. All I had to do that morning was back my truck up to the boat and hook it up, which was accomplished while the coffee was brewing. I downed an apple and a banana for breakfast on the road, and brought an apple and some cheese and crackers for a snack in the boat. The parking lot at the boat ramp was empty when I came over the hill, and I pushed the boat into the lake before 6 a.m. I was on a mission to try some new bass poppers. 

A few years ago, my friends and I were standing around next to the drift boats discussing the days fishing when a fellow approached to have a look at the boats and announced that he worked for the Montana Fly Company. He gazed over the boats quickly but wanted us to know he was credited with developing the hot nymph at the time. I don’t recall if it was called the pink squirrel or purple haze, but it was popular on the Montana river we were floating and the local fly shops were well stocked with them. I must have bought a few, but I don’t remember them being any better than any of the other flies we were using. 

I’ve succumbed to the temptation of inventing my own flies, too. Mostly bass-bug type flies, but there are a couple trout flies that worked. A favorite dry fly is basically a cheap copy of the Adams. I’d be wrong to claim I invented it, or even developed it – I just tied it with materials I had on hand and added a touch of red to the tail on the advice of an old timer who knows every brook trout stream in the area. That bit of floss probably turns the fly into an attracter rather than a true mayfly imitation and a purist would scoff at it. Then there’s the nymph I tie entirely with the fur and hair of a pine marten I trapped, save for the gold bead and rib. It’s a generic looking thing that catches trout, like every fly does, when it works. 

It’s the bass flies where I’ve done the most damage. In a category where just about anything goes, I’ve put together some flies that were truly mistakes. They failed on the water and looks; I regret that a few others have seem them – I can still hear the laughter. I have a pile of those rejects that I keep only to one day cut apart to save the hooks.  

I love catching bass on top-water offerings and I enjoy tying and using deer-hair poppers and divers. I have some that are years old and still tight and effective while others have faded and loosened from good use. Some folks coat their deer-hair with resins that gives them an almost plastic coating, but that’s not for me. Like everyone, I modify mine with colors, spots, and stripes to suit myself, though I’ve simplified the process – it takes a long enough to build a deer hair popper without all the fancy stuff – but I certainly didn’t invent the popper or Dahlberg Diver. 

I did come up with something that works, however. I was thinking of a topwater fly that would be quick and easy to tie. You know, a “guide fly”. It only consists of a couple of materials, including a single piece of craft foam. Tied in three colors, so far, I’ve been testing them for a few days with good results. The rocky shorelines of the big lake are twenty miles from home and a favorite place of mine. After the early season rush of walleye anglers, it’s surprising how the activity slows down. There are multiple boat access ramps on the lake, and there are always some boats out there, but I fish the bays in solitude. It probably helps that I avoid it on weekends. 

 I started with the yellow and hooked a bass on the third cast. These hard fighting chunky bass actually pull the boat around! They say the tug is the drug, and had I just been fishing I would have stayed with it. But in the interest of Research & Development I switched it up for the green one. That worked, too. And I’m happy to report I caught bass on the white popper, as well. I haven’t introduced them to the world yet, meaning a few of my fishing buddies, but look forward to answering when they ask what fly are you catching all those bass on? 

Five hours of casting, catching, and maneuvering the boat, sometimes in a bothersome wind, seemed like enough. I’d be home for lunch. When I pulled the boat up the ramp there were only two other vehicles in the parking lot. Nice. 

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

The Gun Club


It’s a fun club – no competitive league scores, teams, or trophies. We use score sheets mainly to keep track of expenses and we keep those as low as possible. Just enough to keep operating. We have two skeet ranges and one 40-foot tower that’ll test your shooting skills. One of the skeet ranges is usually set up as a “wobble skeet” shoot, and I won’t try to explain the set-up here, but if you’re feeling good about your standard skeet score the wobble course will bring you down a notch or two. I love it, and seldom shoot regular skeet anymore. 


We have somewhere in the neighborhood of fifty paid members, men and women, though seldom see more than half that on any given day, especially during the winter, and we’re always open to the public. As might be expected, just before hunting seasons open, we see some new faces. And we put on a couple of events: a springtime wild game feed and a summer picnic. We host the local high school shooting team, as well. 

Our members are made up of all kinds of folks. Some are serious shooters with dedicated target guns who shoot at clubs around the state and beyond. And some of us are bird hunters with our field guns just trying to keep our shooting eye straight a couple of times a month.  



We gather in the clubhouse, fill the woodstove and coffee pot, and sometimes tell stories more than we shoot -- dogs, ducks, grouse and fishing are favorite subjects. There's usually a crockpot filled with something delicious, and everyone pitches in with the snacks, especially around Christmas. It’s as enjoyable as can be.  



I lay pretty low in the winter, snowshoeing and skiing around home. mostly. But I do look forward to those afternoons at the gun club. 


Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Old Fashioned Donuts

 The morning started with anticipation and a quick and favored breakfast of hot toasted English muffins melting a generous share of country butter and a healthy dripping of local honey. Add a handful of chilled blueberries for good measure. The sun would be up in less than an hour and we had a way to go to the desired cover. My slim Silver Pigeon was cased and ready. The shooting vest was hanging from the hook in my truck with a fistful of yellow Federal 7 1/2s in the pocket. Gabi was spinning at the door, eager to take her place on the front seat, knowing what was ahead.  

The season started a little too warm and the cover a little too thick for good grouse hunting, as usual, but October’s chill straightened that out. There appeared to be plenty of birds around and social media sites were plastered with advice on where to find them and photos of dead grouse. Gabi and I were doing fine, and the first birds of the year fell to my grandfather’s 16 gauge – a gun I wanted to add my own experiences to the history of that old Remington. 

Sometime along the way I switched to the twenty, a gun I believe I shoot best and the gun I’d hunt out the season with. After a stop to refill my coffee, we drove to the cover. What used to be a logging road is overgrown to a single-file path trafficked by more wildlife than people. A quarter mile from the trailhead the beavers moved in and flooded the trail, leaving a narrow crossing on the dam itself. I’ve hunted this place for years and have seen it develop from prime grouse cover to the older woods it is now. But it’s a picturesque hike with a bird dog – a mix of aspen, birch and pine with several ponds along the way. Ducks, geese, and swans are often spotted, and we always find grouse.  

Gabi raced across the beaver dam well ahead of me and I heard her bell drop into the thick stuff left of the trail. I was climbing the grade from the pond when her bell fell silent. She was a good ways out and after a stumbling, ducking search I spotted her locked up at the edge of alders looking straight at me. The grouse blew up and pumped for altitude when my shot caught it. Ah, the smell of burnt power! Feeling good, I pushed back to the trail, keeping Gabi close. Five minutes later she was pointing again, a bit off the right side of the trail. Gun at the ready, I ducked low balsams branches when a grouse jumped from the tree and offered no shot. A second grouse was taken over her point a bit later and I was enjoying the beautiful day with a fine dog and the comfortable heft of two birds in the bag. Then I missed the next four birds, sending seven shots with no results. That was the start of my shooting slump. 

 My dictionary defines a slump as “an unaccountable decline in effectiveness.” Well, ok, it’s not like I’m a crack shot to begin with, so any decline is noticeable. I’m still haunted by a missed shot that I knew I would miss because of poor gun mounting: the grouse rose above the bare treetops and offered an easy left-right crossing shot. I rushed the shot and failed to raise the buttstock to my shoulder where it belongs. I thus didn’t get my cheek down on the stock and I knew I was off even as I pulled the trigger. Twice.  

Nash Buckingham wrote, “Swift, comfortable, accurate gun mounting that coordinates timing, forward allowance and barrel level (a trio not easily assembled) is a must.” You’d think by this stage of the game I’d have that down pat. Excuses are easy to come by and frustration can be tough to overcome, but the grouse win more often than not, so bid them farewell and hope they live to breed next spring.  


Some shooting friends and I were discussing the demise of little cafes that used to be around. You know the kind where you enter and take whatever is available, a chair at a table, a seat in a booth, or stool at the counter. The smell of bacon fills the room in the mornings, burgers in the afternoon. A waitress approaches carrying a pot of coffee. Pies are in the glass case. And there are donuts. Oh, those donuts!  

Whenever I’m hunting or fishing in the area, a stop at Patten’s Cafe is called for. The usual cliental is made up of loggers, road workers, and sportsmen; those retired lead the storytelling. I always stop for two plain cake donuts. I assume they are fried in lard or Crisco, a little crunchy on the outside and soft, but dry inside. You’ll want coffee. Delicious! 







Thursday, June 30, 2022

Fine times

 There’s not a thing more peaceful than being on a still lake early in the morning. Nothing that I can think of, anyway. Other than the birds singing, the only sound is my fly line coursing through the air and the plopping popper being stripped back in. It won’t be long before the drone of an outboard motor out on the main lake will reach my ears, but for now the lake is mine.

I could consider this lake my home waters, but there is plenty of the lake I have yet to explore. Partly because I tend to fish a few favored spots I’ve found and partly because this lake covers nearly 40,000 acres with over 300 miles of shoreline. Of course, there are many boat access landings on it, and I can be on one in less than twenty miles from my house. As the crow flies the southernmost bay is only ten miles away.

There is plenty of development along the shores, more than a guy like me cares to see – everything from small, sagging cabins built by iron miners back when they could afford a chunk of lakeshore to the multi-million-dollar mansions of the wealthy, mostly absentee owners who are, well, mostly absent. Progress, I suppose.

Still, there are miles of undeveloped shoreline, rocky bays and islands where I go and spend hours casting poppers and streamers for bass, pike, and muskies. Some of the fish are big, some are not. Sometimes the bite is on. Sometimes it's just a boat ride. Pack a lunch. Sip some coffee. Look around and wish it was always like this.

I was on the lake again the other day and pushed my boat off at a favorite landing. Early season madness was over, the walleye fishing had evened out and there was less rush to get on the water. Most folks were either still in the sack or having breakfast and thinking about mowing the lawn instead of fishing. I was glad that no one was around, because right from the launch I drop the electric trolling motor and start working the rocky shoreline. I can’t be the only bass angler that recognizes good habitat, but it seems people are eager to get away from the boat ramp and I’d sooner not advertise good fishing holes fifty feet from the dock.

While it would be nice if it was fishing anytime, all the time, of course it’s not. There’s been some tough weather this season and though plenty of the country is seeing worse, the weathercasters continually warn of approaching severe storms. A few nights ago I stood at the bedroom window listening to a roaring wind and trees cracking, followed by buckets of rain. Luckily no buildings were damaged and the electricity was only out for a short time, but I’m still not finished cleaning up downed trees. But the trees aren’t going anywhere so tomorrow I’m going fishing.

Friday, May 6, 2022

Slow morning drive

 There’s no doubt that this Spring has been one of the latest in arriving. Here in northern Minnesota the official date of March 20 means little, and Groundhog’s Day means nothing. But this year winter really kept her grip on things. Fishing season opens in eight days and the lakes are still mostly ice covered. Shaded areas still support deep banks of snow. The grouse have just started drumming at my place last week. There are a few woodcock around and they’re looking for someplace high and dry to nest. 

This morning Gabi and I took a ride to check things out on the forest road near here. There’s nothing like driving east into the sun to notice how dirty the windshield is, but it didn’t seem to bother Gabi, always alert for activity. It was 29 degrees when I left the house, so the heater felt good. A big mug of coffee was delicious and morning public radio is usually pretty entertaining, sometimes enlightening. 

The road took us to two lakes and approaching the first it didn’t seem like much was going on. There is some open water out from the shore but the main body is covered with rotting ice. Thanks to my 10x binocular I soon spotted a multitude of waterfowl. Mallards, ringnecks, blue-winged teal, Canada geese, ospreys, eagles, and the largest flock of trumpeter swans I’ve ever seen – probably 30 in one group. 

On the way to the second lake a couple of healthy-looking deer crossed ahead and a grouse was out picking gravel from the road. In some places patches of snow still covered the road. The second lake is smaller, but deeper and showed less open water then the first.  

Yes, Spring is slow coming, but sure is welcome. 


Friday, April 29, 2022

Granddad's gun

 For an outdoor minded kid, our duck camp was a favorite place to be, particularly in the fall when it was gunning season. But there was more to it than that. The long narrow lane in was a good place to start teaching a youngster to drive a car -- that's when I was first allowed behind the wheel. In the summer there were fishing and swimming to be done and boat handling was learned by accident. The sandy river-bottom soil was home to a great watermelon patch, and the surrounding hardwoods were meant for exploring. Fox and raccoons to be seen; muskrats and mink and turtles and frogs along the river. A boy with a handful of traps could get some fine nature lessons. Still, those autumn flights of waterfowl remained the year’s foremost attraction.  

Dad used his old Remington Sportsman 16-gauge and knocked ducks from the air with little apparent effort. It was his gun and he knew how to use it. Being a youngster short on knowledge and experience, and unaware of what I was being taught, I assumed my shooting failures were attributed to being outgunned. So occasionally Dad would shoot with his beautiful little pump-action .410 just to show me it could be done, because in those early years I was using a .410 and not hurting the duck population much. Back in those days before non-toxic shot regulations a good man could wield that little sub-gauge effectively. Yet, as I grew older, I figured I’d pile ‘em up if only I had a 12 gauge. 

When I hit my teens I found some ways to earn a little money with various jobs and fur trapping and before long I’d saved enough to buy a used 12-gauge pump-action shotgun. I figured I was in high heaven then, while Dad stood beside me in the marsh and continued to wipe my eye with the old 16.  

I took that old Remington Sportsman out the other day just to have a look. It had been sitting, unused, since the mid 1970’s when Dad put it away for the new Browning I gave him one Christmas. And, oh, how he shot that Browning till the end of his shooting days! I decided the old Remington deserved a workout at the gun club, but first I had to do something about the ill-fitted, deteriorating recoil pad. I’ve refinished a few gunstocks and had a few used pads laying around, so I was happy to find one that looked like it would work. After I removed the old rubber pad, I found a slip of yellowed, brittle paper inside the hollow of the stock. On that paper was written my grandfather’s name, address, and the date: 7 Sept. 1940. That gun was not only my father’s, but my grandfather’s before him and the sentimental cool factor sudden raised by 100%. 

The fixed full choke barrel was the norm for waterfowl before non-toxic shot became required, but it’s not very conducive to high scores on the skeet range. I was happy to hit more than I missed and am now pondering having the choke opened for a more useable grouse and woodcock gun. I can’t imagine how much game was brought to ground with the old shotgun and I’ll never match it, but perhaps I can add a bit of my own history gunning with it. 

Friday, April 1, 2022

Spooling line tips... sort of.

 One day old Bill, a gunsmith and skeet shooting buddy, came to me and said, "Hey, you're a fly fisher, take this," and handed me a big, mostly plastic reel that he assumed was a fly reel. I didn't know exactly what kind of reel it was. but it wasn't any kind of fly reel I'd ever seen. But I took it and found a use for it. I learned later the reel is called a mooching reel used for some type of salmon fishing, I'm guessing big, deep water 'cause it'll hold nearly a half mile of 14# test line. 

I had two old broken spinning rods -- why I keep this stuff I'll never know -- but with a little cutting and epoxy they were fitted together and have made a handy tool for re-spooling lines and particularly for cleaning fly lines.  The big reel works great for that and I've been using it for years. 

So, I decided to put a new line on my oldest trout reel. I've had the new line for a couple of months, purchased along with a couple of new shirts paid with Cabela's points. I figured it was due because the old one had been spooled for a long time, years, in fact. For some reason I decided to do the job from my easy chair, close to my coffee cup, and pulled the old line off and dropped it to the floor instead of getting my tool. I was surprised that that old line was in such good condition -- no cracks or noticeable wear at all -- and I knew then I would keep it as a spare and rewind it to the empty spool the new line came on.  So, after the new line was on the fly reel, I started wrapping the old one and realized it was easier said than done. What a tangle! The spooling tool would have saved some frustration. Lesson learned. I should have known better, though seems fitting for April Fools Day.

 Incidentally, I don't typically recommend or endorse any brand name or products to anyone. There are folks better at analyzing this stuff than I am, and my advice could be interpreted as the blind leading the blind, but I have a couple of the less pricey Cabela's lines on reels and they perform and last as well, for me, as some of my lines costing twice as much. Just saying. Good fishing!